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NWSL Week In Review: Portland Headed In The Right Direction?

Christine Sinclair prepares to celebrate as Nadia Nadim's 83rd minute equalizer steals a point for the Thorns in Boston (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Christine Sinclair prepares to celebrate as Nadia Nadim’s 83rd minute equalizer steals a point for the Thorns in Boston (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Momentum is pretty much deemed a fallacy by most people who study advanced analytics, and body language might be even more disdained by the same folk. And if Portland doesn’t steady its slow-moving 2017 ship after Friday night’s 2-2 draw at Boston, you can disregard pretty much everything that follows here.

But as the Thorns looked ready to bow meekly at Boston and fall behind them in the NWSL standings, suddenly they sparked to life. Lindsey Horan played perhaps her best half as an American professional, Portland got a little bit of a break on a penalty kick goal and came back to get a road point after trailing 2-0 and looking ready to capitulate.

“We have a great team and we have to keep believing it even when we’re down,” Nadia Nadim, who scored both goals Friday, said. “It’s not the first time we’ve been behind 2-0, and we have the quality to come back. So we did.”

Portland is still three points behind North Carolina in a crowded (at least early) bid to repeat as NWSL Shield winners, but might a 30-minute burst be able to set the league’s most well-known franchise back on the right path? Or were they ever truly off it in the first place? The Thorns still sit in the middle of the pack as the season reaches its quarter-pole, and have done so without Tobin Heath and Dagny Brynjarsdottir. They played Friday without perhaps their best current player, Allie Long, who was held out with a slight hamstring injury.

Long’s injury on top of the others left the Thorns in a bit of an embarrassing predicament on Friday. A team averaging 15,000 fans per home game was able to field just two healthy field player substitutes for a regular season game (and used just one). Some of that is not the Thorns’ doing: the NWSL sets roster limits, for instance, and none of Portland’s top three draft picks from 2017 is currently active for the Thorns, although they hope to have Tyler Lussi soon (finishing up graduation requirements before reporting), while Savannah Jordan (who just left Glasgow) may take a little bit longer. They also drafted Rachel Hill, but immediately shipped her to Orlando for a 2018 draft pick, saying they had enough depth for this season. Trying to bring up amateur players is not quite as easy as it looks (or perhaps should be). However, just from a pure optics perspective as a professional league, it doesn’t look good.

On the field, Portland boasts more players with full international experience than perhaps any other in NWSL even without Heath and Brynjarsdottir, between Long, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Sonnett, Nadia Nadim, Horan, and Amandine Henry. But someone who was not aware of that fact might not have noticed much out of any of those players this season, except possibly Long, that would indicate they are among the best in the world. Why? Well, it’s hard to say when that kind of thing happens, as it does often in sports. Could be nagging injuries (as Klingenberg has had), could just be a poor mixture of players, or it could be that maybe they were a bit overrated and Jill Ellis (for the Americans, at least) would be wise to look at some different people heading into the World Cup in two years.

So the good news for Thorns and their fans is that even the worst case scenario probably puts them in the playoff race, but I’m sure – with the talent assembled – they want much more than that. Will they get it? Much of that may depend on Heath, and the reports after the game were not encouraging. It seems like the earliest she would return is June 17, although Portland plays only twice before then. By then, Lussi should be around, and we’ll see exactly what Portland has in store for us.

“Most teams go the other way at that point and Boston puts three or four in. But we dug in,” Portland coach Mark Parsons said. “We didn’t have any energy before that. We don’t have people on the sideline to bring in to get that energy because we’re so banged up. We grind it out. There were people that looked like they didn’t have anything in the tank and they found it somehow and equalized. It’s nights like this that you look at the end of the season that you find out what the team is about. Tonight we were a bunch of tough cookies.”

Maybe this was the spark that gets Portland rolling with a few wins in a row. But from a neutral perspective, it’s a lot more fun than a team running away with the league anyway, isn’t it?

What else did we learn this weekend as the table showed no signs of separating itself?

FRIDAY

Boston 2:2 Portland (recap  |  Parsons on Pugh)

What Went Down: Matt Beard was rightfully quite angry after Friday’s game, as he knows – regardless of what has happened in Boston’s past – he had the better team, probably the better chances, and a two-goal second half lead and had to settle for one point. While the progress made is certainly praiseworthy and significant, two dropped points here could be the difference between making the postseason and not come September. With that being said, if the Breakers keep putting in performances like this, they’ll be fine.

“We’re in complete control of the game,” Beard said. “Then they won a penalty that I’ll have to take a look at on film. We’ve created enough chances to win two games tonight in my opinion. We’ve hit the post, Franch made a great save, in the second half we caused them a lot of problems and we’ve been punished again because we haven’t taken our chances when we’ve had a chance to kill the game off.”

Portland’s outside backs – Celeste Boureille and Klingenberg – had all kinds of trouble dealing with containment in wide areas, and that’s an area that Parsons will have to address going forward. But their last goal was quite spectacular.

Player of the Game: Lindsey Horan – For all the talent, there does seem to be a dearth of leadership in the Thorns, but Horan filled that void Friday with perhaps her best NWSL performance, especially in the second half when her team needed her to. She got herself into the attack and controlled the middle of the field, things we’ve been waiting to see out of her both this season and last.

Under the Radar: Rosie White – White scored Boston’s second goal, but even beyond that was very active and gave the Breakers an attacking edge, recording four shots on the evening. For a team that couldn’t score at all last season, that’s huge.

Inside the Numbers: 4 – Number of fouls Adriana Leon was credited with, including one on Adrianna Franch that left her with a bloody mouth, and was initiated largely by Franch. But referees have been giving goalkeepers the benefit of the doubt since the beginning of soccer time, I guess.

Up next: Boston – at Portland (Sat.); Portland – vs. Boston (Sat.)

SATURDAY

Sky Blue 2:1 Houston (recap  |  D’Avanzo)

What Went Down: If you remember Osinache Ohale, you can order your NWSL die-hard card online, but the Nigerian central defender was Randy Waldrum’s first answer in the middle of his defense way back in 2014. Unfortunately, Ohale never really worked out at this level, and Waldrum really hasn’t found anyone to replace her since. This season’s revelation was South African Janine van Wyk, and it took five games for Waldrum to bench her in favor of a Cari Roccaro-Cami Privett pairing.

Roccaro was at fault (thanks to Sam Kerr) in a play that eventually conceded a penalty for Sky Blue’s first goal, while Privett not only committed the foul, but couldn’t deal with a fairly routine free kick that allowed Raquel Rodriguez to pounce on the game-winner in the 84th minute. You can break down tactics any way you like, but those two plays separate the Dash – who otherwise played pretty well – from a victory, and those types of results have a way of mentally draining your team over the long-term. And so the Dash are near the bottom of the table again.

Player of the Game: Christie Pearce – It’s almost the perfect team for a veteran player with the disposition that Pearce has. Sky Blue is so young that they seem to make plenty of errors in the back, but there is Pearce to clean up most of them by seeing them before they blow up into massive issues. So far, so good.

Under the Radar: Kealia Ohai – Ohai has continued to play well despite Houston’s problems as she pretty much went by Erin Simon at will Saturday, creating the Dash goal and nearly a couple of others.

Inside the Numbers: 19-38-13 – Randy Waldrum’s record with Houston, after he was 292-58-17 at Notre Dame. So things have been slightly more difficult.

Up next: Sky Blue – at North Carolina (Wed.); Houston – vs. Seattle (Sat.)

Washington 0:1 Kansas City  (recap  |  Gordon)

What Went Down: Mallory Pugh made her NWSL debut and showed flashes of what she will likely become, but FCKC did a pretty good job of limiting her influence. In the end, as Kansas City has done and will apparently continue to do, neither team had a whole lot of chances (despite Jim Gabarra trying to go to a 3-4-3). Kristie Mewis probably had the best chance for either team in the first half, but somehow hit the crossbar from close range, while Alexa Newfield turned around at the other end and buried her opportunity from a tight angle. And that was pretty much the difference.

FCKC’s last five games have featured a total of five goals, and that’s just the way it’s going to be, I’m afraid.

Player of the Game: Alexa Newfield – In a game like this, when you score a goal as she did for the winner, it’s good enough to be here. Newfield also tallied four shots to provide at least some offensive spark, venturing into the opposing box when she could.

Under the Radar: Kristie Mewis – In a way, it’s a shame Mewis missed that chance, because she played very well coming off an injury, and should be able to work well with Pugh going forward. That may be a key combination for Gabarra to get going if the Spirit are going to make it to the top half of the table.

Inside the Numbers: 2 – Number of fouls committed by Becky Sauerbrunn, which may be a career high. The second one, early in the second half, actually drew a yellow card.

Up next: Washington – at Kansas City (Sat.); Kansas City – vs. Washington (Sat.)

SUNDAY

North Carolina 1:3 Chicago (recap)

What Went Down: Well, I think it’s safe to say that Paul Riley got this one wrong in a pretty major way when he decided to: a) put the leading goal scorer in NWSL history – Jess McDonald – in defense, and b) in a 3-back. To be fair, Abby Erceg was suspended and the Courage play again on Wednesday, so if there was ever a time to experiment, this might have been it. But it was a disaster, as the Red Stars pounced and could have been up 5-0 by halftime with a little better finishing.

North Carolina was 10000% (estimated) better in the second half, but it is still a great result for Chicago, who is within two points of the Courage for the league lead after a rough start. Christen Press probably had her best game of the season, at least in terms of activity, and – even though the Red Stars had less possession in the contest – the midfield was dominant, picking holes in what was almost a 6-person North Carolina midfield. So back to the drawing board to tear that plan to shreds for the defending champs.

Player of the Game: Sofia Huerta – With all the experimenting Jill Ellis has done with the USWNT, including calling in two of her teammates (Casey Short and Arin Gilliland), Huerta has never gotten the chance. Yet. But performances and goals like she had Sunday and it has to be only a matter of time, especially because Huerta is very versatile and can be used in a few different spots (not center back, though).

Under the Radar: Dani Colaprico – She started out wide left, but drifted into the middle plenty, probably by design. If you give her enough space and time, she will pick apart your defense, especially a makeshift one like the Courage ran out there.

Inside the Numbers: 33-4 – Disparity in clearances between North Carolina (4) and Chicago (33). NWSL stats are still not totally reliable, but if that was half-true, it shows how much pressure the Courage put on in the second half, even if it was for naught.

Up next: North Carolina – vs. Sky Blue (Wed.); Chicago – vs. North Carolina (Sat.)

Seattle 1:1 Orlando (recap)

What Went Down: Tom Sermanni hasn’t had much success in NWSL yet, but he also hasn’t had much luck. Sunday, Ashlyn Harris left with what looked like a pretty serious hip injury after taking a simple goal kick. Aubrey Bledsoe is out with a concussion, so it was Caroline Stanley, signed only earlier in the week, coming in. Soon after, Beverly Yanez scored on a corner that Stanley didn’t clear properly (a little nervous, surely, she did well in the second half).

But it was another contest where the Pride did not play badly, and they were rewarded with another giant goalkeeping mistake at the other end in the second half, as Haley Kopmeyer went short on a goal kick, which is a bad idea with Marta lucking, and seconds later Marta tied the match. They probably deserved all three points, and if they can ever get Marta and Alex Morgan together, who knows?

Player of the Game: Alanna Kennedy – Acquiring Kennedy seems to be an excellent move as she has been solid in the middle, with the possible exception of the semi-meltdown in North Carolina. Again, the Pride don’t seem all that far off.

Under the Radar: Katie Johnson – It’s different coming off the bench as a sub than it is starting, but the game changed when Johnson was introduced, and she has been stellar in the limited action she has received as a rookie. Might it mean a starting position soon?

Inside the Numbers: 12 – Number of corner kicks Seattle had in the contest. So I guess regardless of who was in goal, one was probably due to end up a Seattle goal anyway.

Up next: Seattle – at Houston (Sat.); Orlando – at Sky Blue (Sat.)

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